It was a cold Saturday morning in late October and I found myself craving for some street food in Sinchon. After a short walk down a familiar bustling street, curiosity got the best of me and I just randomly entered a red Saju tent. Aside from usual bakeries and fast food chains littering the youthful atmosphere of this area, I’ve walked past these tents almost every day.
Not sure if I was half hoping for another Pojangmacha (포장마차) but I bravely (or foolishly) continued. Though my Korean is rudimentary enough, luckily I was with a Korean friend at the time. She helped translate the weird ride that was Saju. Not to be confused with a similar sounding alcoholic beverage that we all know and love.
Saju at a Glance
Saju (사주) is an ancient Chinese form of divination based on a series of numbers – your year, month, day, and time of birth (also known as “the Four Pillars”). Using the details of your birth through a complicating combination of Chinese characters known as Palja (팔자), 10 “earthly stems”, 12 “heavenly branches”, and the Yin-Yang of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) one can basically read what destiny has in store for them.
Though originally from China as Sizhu (四柱), the practice caught on in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty and had spread throughout the country. Saju readings were popular and generally held before wedding ceremonies, births, even business decisions, and among other important life events.
In the Saju Tent
So when I walked into that Saju tent, I expected a wrinkled ajumma dressed in colorful garb and staring me down as a “weiguk” (foreigner). To my surprise, a delighted middle-aged ajeosshi said “Hello!” I looked around his humble little stall and saw a few autographs from Korean celebrities. There were also an odd trinket or two littered about the table – talismans, some bones, and unique gemstones.
He beckoned me and my friend to sit as he opened up a few shabby books on his table. After telling him the details of my birth, he started scribbling in Korean and Chinese on a piece of paper. He kept flipping pages of the dusty old tomes constantly.
I watched him intently looking back and forth between the books and his paper. One moment he’d jot something down, the next he would whisper to himself. At random, he’d make exclamations of joy and disappointment. For 9,000won ($8) and ten awkward minutes of angst, this man would reveal my “supposed” future.
“You are a White Sheep (백양), equal to Metal but Water would be the element of luck for me”. The confusion was real, was my friend just a bad translator or did the ajeosshi’s words not carry over? My Chinese zodiac animal was a Rooster (수탉), but I guess I’ll just wait and hear the rest of his tale.
I made the realization later that Saju was more than the simple horoscopes and zodiacs. He explained that these attributes were taken from my birthday. These attributes make up the foundations of my relationships, my finances, my personality, my health, and so on.
A Glimpse of the Future
Some of the stuff he told me were very basic and some were crazy accurate traits about me. The rest were things that have yet come to pass or were just plain ridiculous in detail.
Financially, I would have hardships but I was resourceful and could earn good money as well as manage it. His character evaluation was on point, as I am an introvert, as well as careful, focused, and smart.
He said 2021 would be a good year for me (specifically that winter). I will have a stable career and a lovely married life by then with someone spiritually compatible.
My relationship with my mother could be better, my two kids would be a source of my luck, my wife would be of Yin and Fire, and the family would prosper with indirect wealth (편재). But he also warned that she should avoid a person of Yin and Water or I would become sick.
I was healthy and strong like an ox (for now), but I’d start declining at the age of 66. I asked, “of what?” He replied, “kidney disease”. Well, that’s swell… at least he mentioned I would have a good life and will travel more and more into the future.
The last bits before we concluded our session were odd pieces of advice. I should start wearing black clothes and try to sleep on the north facing side of the house. “Hmm… alright”. Pig and Rat years are lucky. “Okay”. But lastly, I should do my work between the hours of 9pm and 1am. All I could muster from these strange revelations was an “uh huh”, some nodding and some internal pondering. He shakes my hand rapidly, then finished with “have a nice day” before bidding me a goodbye wave.
The Future of Saju
I wonder how long Saju will survive in Korea with the modernization and adoption of Western ideas in South Korea? Given that Saju has survived hundreds of years into the present day and the abundance of the Saju booths throughout the country, I don’t think it’ll disappear anytime soon. Saju has even evolved with the times as there has been an online presence of this ancient cultural tradition. Fortunetelling also doesn’t have the same “gypsy-hippy”stigma here as in the West. Many Koreans still visit a Saju during Seollal (Lunar New Year).
If you have an interest in visiting such a place – there are many fortunetellers in the Insadong, Hongdae, Apgujeong, Myeongdong, and Cheongdamdong areas of Seoul. Many of these mystics can’t speak English, so take a Korean friend with you if you aren’t fluent already. It’s a unique experience and one that I’ll have to wait and find out if the predictions go down as he said. I for one do not look forward to kidney disease but it’s not like it’ll really play out, right? Only time will tell.